The first thing you notice about The Fits is the silence.
Besides the sound of her hushed counting, which plays over the opening credits, our protagonist Toni (Royalty Hightower) doesn’t speak out loud until 11 minutes into the movie. In that time, we’re shown the world exclusively through her eyes. Between the boxing gym where she trains with her brother, a place heaving with the sweat, blood, and testosterone of teenage boys, and the all-girl dance troupe she yearns to be a part of, Toni largely exists on the outside looking in. She is the archetypal introvert, quietly observing her surroundings with loaded and eloquent looks. In turn, the film reflects Toni’s personality, offering a profound coming-of-age story that needs no theatrics to be heard.
A strong-willed introverted character is exactly the type of person director Anna Rose Holmer wanted to portray. “Being introverted doesn’t mean you lack confidence or a voice,” she told BuzzFeed News last month on the phone. “One of the things about Toni is she says a lot, not necessarily with words, but she’s still communicating. She’s looking through the window, but she’s the one who steps into the room. She is the one who the audience is seeing this entire world through her eyes and her body, and her experience.” While Holmer said she “just hasn’t seen enough” of this kind of character, Toni’s mannerisms are strikingly reminiscent of Moonlight’s young Chiron, an extremely introverted black boy whose most powerful moments of communication are nonverbal. Despite appearing withdrawn, both Toni and Chiron drive the action, and in Toni’s case, her quiet exterior indicates anything but weakness or passivity. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being quiet or introverted, I think that’s fine,” Holmer explained. “You can find a way to be outspoken in other ways and other crafts, and for Toni that becomes dance.”
The Fits follows 11-year-old Toni’s journey to becoming a part of a tight-knit dance team in Cincinnati’s West End. Drawn to the girls' confidence and the bond they share, Toni vigorously trains and masters dance routines to fit in. However, when a spell of hysterical fits begins affecting each member of the team, Toni’s desire for inclusion suddenly becomes more complicated. It’s a story that’s about not just self-discovery through dance, but more widely the idea of “fitting in” and the significance of assimilation, particularly at Toni’s age. “We really wanted to tell a story about girlhood that wasn’t about a sexual awakening,” Holmer explained. “I think oftentimes coming-of-age stories or films about young women conflate self-discovery with sexual awakening, and we wanted to separate those two and make it its own beat.” In doing so, Holmer gives viewers a narrative that’s stunningly simple and overwhelmingly relatable. In the desperation to be included, even something as extreme as a fit can appear desirable.
Holmer posits that there’s some beauty in the fits, describing them as “a kind of ethereal, transcendent, inexplicable feeling that is very formative”. “They evolve,” she said. “They grow as Toni’s understanding of them shifts and her understanding of herself shifts.” Indeed, as Toni’s consciousness begins to change, the film becomes less about the anxiety surrounding the fits themselves and more about the anticipation of Toni’s own fit, as well as the underlying fear that she may never even have one. In conversations about the mass hysteria, she becomes isolated, and is even asked, “What do you know about it?” when she tries to join in. In one scene, while overhearing the older girls compare their experiences, Toni is literally cut off from the group by a banister that splits the screen down the middle. Though she admits she’s scared, and doesn’t want it to happen to her, her inexperience threatens to alienate her completely. In the pre-teen world, conformity trumps individuality.
During the 72-minute movie, there are several points where the both complex and mundane nature of childhood is depicted with astonishing clarity. In one scene, Toni stands in the bathroom alone, pulling faces in the mirror and sticking out her tongue. It’s an understated gesture, reflective of the innocent world of a child, and embodies Holmer’s aim of finding “the profound in the mundane”. “It’s special because we’re showing it to the audience, so you don’t need to embellish it by saying this is a moment that’s important to this film, as opposed to moments you’re not seeing,” she said. “I think that that was a kind of philosophy that we had, only showing the essential, and we had a very lean story, a lean run time, and a lot of that ‘no fat’ mentality.”
Part of this mentality meant Holmer and her team being forthright in their intentions and imbuing each scene with purpose, a process that Holmer describes as a collaborative effort. “Many of those things just came from my team, including a lot of our own memories and our own experiences on page, and then taking this amazing cast of kids and teenagers and including their voices too and saying, ‘We want you to be authors alongside of us.’” She specifically commends Royalty Hightower’s role in this too, describing the young actor as a “generous collaborator and performer” who listened “not just to me, but to herself”.
"I'm still learning about how my voice as a filmmaker has impacted the narrative of black girlhood in the film."
The Fits isn’t explicitly about race, nor is it ever mentioned, but it boasts an all-black cast, featuring several members of Cincinnati dance team the Q-Kidz. In the original story for the film, however, there was nothing about an all-black cast or working with a drill team at all. That came instead through the choice to collaborate with the Q-Kidz, which Holmer revealed was a “big decision”. “We really needed to also examine our own intentions in that. Why was this the right dance form? Why was this the right case? Were we the right storytellers to tackle this? Could we do that justice?” As a non-black director, Holmer admitted, she’s “still learning about how [her] voice as a filmmaker has impacted the narrative of black girlhood in the film”, and added: “I think that it’s about listening mainly, and saying I’m not an authority on that experience, but the film is specifically about black girls in Cincinnati and that should be embraced.” The opportunity to listen to and have honest conversations with everyone — her cast, choreographers and writing team and her audience — is something Holmer values particularly highly. Her hope is to maintain an open dialogue.
As the sound of Kiah Victoria’s “Aurora” swells in the background (a song that asks “Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?”), the camera zooms in on Toni’s feet as they walk along a corridor and follows them as they slowly lift in the air. The moment where she drifts along the hall in front of her peers evokes the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, where Remedios the Beauty floats off the ground and into the sky, disappearing forever. It's a spellbinding scene, made better still by the fact it centres a black girl, literally epitomising “black girl magic”.
In terms of creative process, Holmer admits they had to “break reality and break some of the cinematic rules” in order to achieve the kind of “ethereal, poetic space” she required of the last scene. “What we wanted to do was to get our audience to a very personal, vulnerable space at the end, so that they’re bringing that moment, that transcendent beat from their own lives, to the table.” The movie’s climax is not just about wonder and transcendence for Holmer, though. It also holds a simpler metaphor about dance and letting go. “You’re following the choreography and you’re doing the steps,” she said, “but also embracing the freedom and the joy and the playfulness that comes from really being present, and being seen.”
In the very last shot of the film, the camera rests on Toni’s face, her eyes staring back at the audience. As the seconds tick by, the sides of her mouth slowly upturn until she is smiling, and then the screen fades to black. It’s a typically simple but ambiguous ending, apparently marking Toni's moment of self-discovery. “The audience doesn’t know how much she’s grown until that moment,” Holmer said. “This is so far from where we came, and it’s small, little steps she’s taking, but it’s really about her understanding, her comprehension. Her point of view has changed more than anything else.” To those accustomed to explosive endings, the culmination of these little steps in the final scene may feel anticlimactic. But if indeed you are willing to find the profound within the mundane, this moment, like the rest of the film, speaks volumes. It’s the kind of ending you’d hope for a girl like Toni, one that represents the beauty of growth and coming into one’s own.
It’s an end that feels more like a beginning.
The Fits is available now on Digital Download and on DVD March 20.